Jules Verne takes us to the Aberfoyle mines in Stirling County in Scotland. Aberfoyle is north of Glasgow. It is close to Loch Katrine, which lies a short distance north of Aberfoyle. Loch Lomond and the Grampian Mountains are not far away.
These mines had produced coal for many years. Shafts, tunnels, and subterranean galleries had been dug deep in the bowels of the earth, producing a veritable labyrinth. Finally, the last piece of coal was extracted, and the mining operation ceased.
James Starr, the engineer, said farewell to his miners and moved to Edinburgh. His miners scattered to the four winds. Only Simon Ford, the overman of Dochart pit, remained. All his life he had lived in the mines, together with his wife Madge and his son Harry. They continued to live in the mine.
Ten years later, Simon Ford wanted to talk to James Starr. Starr took a boat up the Forth River to the station in Callander. Here he met Harry. They had to walk a considerable distance to reach Dochart pit.
To reach Simon’s home, they had to descend deep into the earth to reach the lower galleries. On the way, they met Jack Ryan, who invited Harry to attend the Irvine games. He could not come immediately; but he promised to attend within a week.
After reaching the lower galleries and walking through a labyrinthine maze, they reached the home of Simon Ford and his family. Simon called it his cottage. Though it was far beneath the surface of the earth, a deserted shaft let in a little air and light.
As the family treated their guest to a hearty meal, Harry betrayed anxiety. He occasionally got up to investigate some sounds that he thought he had heard. On several previous occasions, Harry had detected the presence of someone else in the mines. In fact, as James and Harry were walking toward the cottage, a stone had fallen at the feet of James. Harry correctly believed that someone had thrown it.
After dinner, Simon and Harry conducted James through the labyrinth. They wanted to show him a discovery that they had made.
Simon always believed that by patient searching, he could find a new vein of coal in the mine. After ten years, he found evidence that he was correct. An explosive mixture of gases called firedamp was seeping into the mine from cracks in the wall at the extreme end of Dochart pit. The presence of firedamp was evidence that a coal seam was nearby.
When the three men arrived at the spot, they found further evidence that someone was tampering with their mine. Someone had calked up the cracks through which firedamp had been seeping. They had to reopen a crack before they could show James that firedamp had truly been entering the mine.
The next day, they returned to the spot and dynamited the wall. To their surprise, an apparently natural system of caves was behind the wall. Moreover, there was plenty of coal. They called it New Aberfoyle.
They decided to explore New Aberfoyle. They walked in a straight line through a gallery till they came to a huge cavern. Above the cavern, they heard the sound of waves. They figured that they were below Loch Katrine.
As they were returning home, something knocked the safety lamp out of Harry’s hand. It broke as it fell. [Much later, they learned that it was Harfang, the trained owl of their enemy.] They walked to the end of the gallery in the dark. To their dismay, the hole that they had blasted in the wall was blocked up. Their enemy had trapped them in New Aberfoyle.
As time passed and James did not reappear in Edinburgh, his friends became worried. Since James did not tell anyone where he was going, they did not know where to look for him. To locate him, they put a notice in several newspapers. The notice described James Starr and gave the date when he disappeared from Edinburgh.
At the same time, Jack Ryan became worried about Harry when he did not attend the festivities at Irving as he had promised. He visited Harry as soon as he could. On the way, he happened to see the newspaper notice concerning the disappearance of James Starr. He recognized the name and remembered meeting him.
When he arrived at Dochart pit, he was not able to reach the cottage because some of the ladders had been removed. Suspecting fowl play, he traveled to Edinburgh and informed the authorities. His lucid report included the fact that he had seen James Starr at Dochart pit on the date of his disappearance. He included this detail because he correctly believed that Starr’s disappearance and the disappearance of the Ford family were somehow connected.
Since James Starr was a member of the Royal Institute at Edinburgh, Sir William Elphiston, its president, soon learned about Jack Ryan’s report. Together with other friends of James Starr, they traveled to Dochart pit. Jack Ryan was their guide.
In the meantime, James Starr and the Ford family had been trapped in New Aberfoyle for more than a week. Fortunately, they had not only a secret enemy, but also a secret friend who stealthily supplied them with a little food and water.
Sir William Elphiston and his party reached the lower galleries of Dochart pit by means of ropes. They found the cottage deserted.
In the distance, they saw a light and followed it. It was same helpful friend who had deposited the food. After leading the party to a crevice that permitted passage to New Aberfoyle, this mysterious personage disappeared. (Remember that the hole blasted by dynamite had been sealed by the enemy.)
They found the missing persons on the other side of the wall. They were barely alive, but they recovered.
Mining operations resumed. James Starr served as engineer, and many former miners returned to work.
The Ford family moved their home to New Aberfoyle. Since there was plenty of room in the natural caverns, James Starr and the miners established their homes there. A chapel was built and the pious miners attended services faithfully. The result was an underground city called Coal Town. An underground lake named Loch Malcolm lay near the city.
The city was illuminated by electricity, and several shafts provided ventilation. A tunnel with a gentle slope facilitated access to the mines. It was equipped with two railroad tacks. New Aberfoyle became a popular tourist destination.
Simon and especially Harry wondered about the identity of their secret enemy and their secret friend. When Harry heard a groan emanating from a deep pit, he brought Jack and some miners, climbed down on a rope, and found a girl who was barely alive. Carrying the girl, he grabbed hold of the rope. His friends then began to pull them up.
Before he reached the top, a huge bird [Harfang] attacked him. With one hand, he defended himself with a knife. The bird pecked at the rope to cut it, but Harry dropped the knife and grabbed the rope above the place where the bird was pecking. He faithfully held on to the girl in spite of his danger. He was losing his grip, but his friends grabbed him just before he fell off the end of the severed rope.
The name of the girl was Nell. She had never been outside the caverns. They could not learn about her past life, since any reference to it filled her was terror.
They correctly concluded that she was the person who had befriended them in their hour of need. They adopted her as their own. She proved to be helpful and intelligent.
Harry continued to look for their enemy. He discovered a passage that led to the surface, and showed the opening to James Starr. They correctly concluded that this is how their enemy entered and left New Aberfoyle.
Harry loved Nell and wanted to marry her, but he hesitated to commit her to an underground life before she saw the outside world. With Jack and James, Harry and Nell traveled to Edinburgh. Then they visited several romantic places of the Scottish countryside, such as Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine.
Nell was thrilled by what she saw. While they were on a boat on Loch Katrine, Harry asked her whether she would be sad when she left the upper air and resumed her subterranean life. She said that she would be glad to go back with Harry to their dear home. Harry then asked her to marry him, and she accepted.
At that moment, the boat stopped. Practically all of the water in Loch Katrine had descended into the earth. Since New Aberfoyle was beneath the Lake, James Starr expressed deep concern.
When they got home, they found that no serious damage had been done. However, when they investigated, they saw signs that the waters of Loch Katrine had descended because of a man-made explosion. It was the work of the enemy.
The enemy did not want Harry to marry Nell. In the month before the wedding, he arranged a series of “accidents” designed to kill Harry. Finally, the enemy revealed his identity. He left a threatening message which he signed. His name was Silfax.
Silfax was very old, and only Simon remembered him. He used to have a dangerous position in the mines of Aberfoyle. Whenever firedamp seeped into the mine, he had to take a match and cause it to explode gradually, so that it could not accumulate and cause a devastating explosion. If he could not reach the seeping firedamp, he gave the match to his trained owl named Harfang, who skillfully performed the required operation. When the miners began to use the safety lamp invented by Davy, Silfax no longer had to perform this dangerous operation.
Silfax mind became deranged. He thought that the coal seams belonged to him, and it grieved him that the miners were extracting the coal.
Silfax was the grandfather of Nell, who had lost both her parents. One day he disappeared, taking Nell with him.
Nell had dutifully refused to betray her grandfather.. However, now that Silfax had already revealed his identity, she no longer had any reason to keep silent. She revealed everything that she knew. She admitted that it was her grandfather who had tried to kill James and the Ford family. He was angry with her for helping him, and when the mining operations began, he began to beat her. He finally threw her down into the shaft, where Harry had found her barely alive.
She also mentioned that Harfang took a liking to her and obeyed her better than it obeyed its master. [It was jealousy that had induced the bird to attack Harry while he was taking Nell away.]
To save the Ford family, Nell wanted to return to her grandfather. However, she changed her mind when Harry insisted on going with her.
While the wedding was taking place, Silfax tried to destroy New Aberfoyle. By an explosion, he released an immense quantity of pent up firedamp. Then he rowed on the surface of Loch Malcolm. As Ryan swam out in an effort to stop him, Silfax opened his safety lamp and lit a wick. Since the firedamp had risen far above his head, it did not explode. So he gave the match to Harfang.
As Harfang began to fly upward, Nell told the owl to come to her. When it recognized her voice, it dropped the match in the water and obeyed her summons.
Silfax then jumped into the water. In response to Nell’s plea, Harry dived into the water and tried to save Silfax, but he failed to accomplish his purpose.
I have given only a skeleton outline of the story. The author provides many interesting details, such as the description of various sights when Harry took Nell to view the world above and the superstitions current among the miners. In addition, there are some interesting incidents that I left out completely, such as a shipwreck supposedly caused by spirits called fire-maidens.
Before reading this story, I expected to read about the discovery of an underground civilization, something like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories about Pellucidar. Jules Verne did treat a similar them in Le Voyage au centre de la Terre (The Journey to the Center of the Earth), but there were no people in that underground realm.
Since I do not have access to the original French, I consulted an online version by Classic Bookshelf to write these notes.